Theatre review: A Season in the Congo, Young Vic, London


It's six years since we last saw him on stage giving an award-winning portrayal of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse. Now Chiwetel Ejiofor is back and in magnificent form as Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the newly independent Congo, in Joe Wright's production of this 1966 play by Aime Cesaire about the fraught political struggles that led to Lumumba's CIA-endorsed assassination after barely seven months of power. 

The country is still a Belgian colony when Ejiofor's charismatic beer salesman sets up the Mouvement National Congolais.  Five years later, at the Independence celebrations in 1960, it's a crassly patronising speech by the King of Belgium about how colonial rule brought “the great gift of civilisation” that stings Lumumba into an unscheduled, soaringly impassioned diatribe against the brutal slavery which that regime imposed.  Westerners are played here by black actors wearing long pink plastic noses but the Belgian oligarchs are a gaggle of outsize, Grosz-like puppet heads as they plot to safeguard their commercial interests by encouraging the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga.  When the UN requests the withdrawal of the Belgian troops who are supporting the break-away government but refuses Lumumba military aid against them, he takes the ultimately fatal step of turning to the Soviet Union for help.

Ejiofor brilliantly conveys the magnetic fervour of the hero's Pan-Africanist ideals, the winningly humane humour of a man who likes to party in floozie-filled bars, and the stubborn streak of naivety that leads him to suppose that if he were to compromise even fractionally, he would be betraying the aspirations of an entire continent.  Joseph Mydell brings a lovely exasperated reserve to the role of President of Congo who, as the country sinks into civil war, unconstitutionally removes from office the people's choice of Prime Minister.

Seating a section of the audience at tables in what looks like a great drained swimming pool, Wright's vibrant production brims with Congolese music and dance.  In traditional dress, the likembe player (Kabongo Tshisensa) is a sort of soothsayer who delivers admonitory fables which the cast translate for the rest of us.  The caricature element (the chattering animal skulls, say, that symbolise the superpowers) is a little overdone, but the stylised movement has a haunting eloquence, as when a Last Supper-like line-up of leaders pass Lumumba's tortured body like an unwanted parcel from one to the other, before rising as the firing squad that shoots him dead. 

To August 24; 020 7922 2922